Did You Hear The One About The Funny Kiwi
Robert Glancy goes on an irreverent ride to find that rare bird - the Witty Kiwi Writer.
I met Kiwis long before I read any Kiwi books. I lived in London and so, naturally, most of my friends were Kiwis. My Kiwi friends all shared one characteristic – they were all funny. Which made me logically assume Kiwi books would be funny too. They’re not. Having ploughed through many a dark and brooding tome, I thought – Could I have met the only five funny Kiwis in the world? Seemed highly unlikely.
When I came to live Auckland in 2003 I’d take the ferry from Waiheke to work. I’d look out over the crystal waters of this exquisite place, chatting and laughing with my funny Kiwi friends, and then I’d crack open a Kiwi book and want to slit my wrists.
Many of the novels came under the category of what Joy Cowley calls ‘bleak books’. I asked a friend how sunny isles packed with witty Kiwis churned out such grim tales. He shrugged, then took me out to a drunken evening where the most inebriated man in the bar was the legendary poet Sam Hunt, who managed – overcoming obstacles of waning memory and slurring tongue – to have us all in stitches.
Then I discovered Steve Braunias, the epitome of Kiwi wit. A man who brings as much clarity and humour to stories about steak-eating competitions as he does to tales of dark Kiwi crimes. From Fool’s Paradise (2001) to his latest book, The Scene of the Crime, his nonfiction books are comic gems. So I went in search of the man who’s succeeded in translating Kiwi wit into words.
Talking to idols is a treacherous business, and I feared he might be one of those writers who are funny in print but unfunny in the flesh. So, feeling nervous, I called and politely requested an interview, and he politely requested that I – ‘Get fucked!’
Braunias is just as funny in life as he is on the page, and inventively offensive too. Upon offering a summary of my article – Kiwis aren’t renowned for funny books and, as an outsider, I wanted to uncover a few amusing authors – he said my angle was ‘crap’, that I should, ‘risk having an original thought for a change’, and offered the sage advice that I should ‘go to a fucking library and read some fucking books.’
I thanked him for his time and his kind words, and said it was probably best I continued my odyssey alone. He then promised he’d ‘try his best to be less offensive’ in an email. So I sent him an email and awaited the purest invective. A lovely email came back. So Braunias, reluctantly and begrudgingly, became my guide to the funny side.
He gave me a brilliant reading list, from A.K .Grant’s I Rode With The Epigrams to Tom Scott’s Ten Years Inside, as well as poems by Bill Manhire. However, Braunias is resistant to the idea of comic novels. ‘Because, with the exception of the singular genius of Woodhouse, most comic novels are no good. There are many NZ novels shot through with humour, and the likes of Grant and Scott are working within the humour tradition, but if either attempted comic novels it’d be a flop, not because of any failure of wit, just that comedy at length is a dreary proposition.’
I don’t entirely agree with this as my favourite books fall firmly into the genre of comedy fiction – Catch-22, Portnoy’s Complaint, Breakfast of Champions, Money, Confederacy of Dunces – and many of these are not just long but also hilarious. Which makes me wonder where the classic Kiwi comedies are hiding.
Assisted by my cranky guide, I had uncovered wry Kiwi poets, as well as Braunias’s merry band of mocking men, caustic wits of the nonfiction tradition. But I still wanted to find comic authors working in the more ambiguous waters of fiction. So I took Braunias’s advice and visited a fucking library to read some fucking books.
When I asked about funny Kiwis the librarian shot me a suspicious look, as though I was taking the piss. Then she gave me The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories, a great gateway book to Kiwi authors. And alongside its darker material – such as Selina Tusitala Marsh’s haunting ‘Afakasi Pours Herself Afa Cuppa Coffee’ – comedy nuggets twinkled, the best being Jo Randerson’s ‘Our New Boss’.
The book was edited by Paula Morris who has written her own funny book – Trendy but Casual. Morris, known for more serious novels, says some New Zealand reviewers treated her ‘funny book’ as if it was a hiatus from the serious business of writing. Which touches on a sore point that may explain why many shy away from the funny side. Comedy isn’t taken seriously. Comedy has a strained relationship with culture.
However, the disposability of comedy isn’t merely the effect of snobbery: there are technical reasons too. Comedy comes with built-in obsolescence; it often contains the seed of its own disposability. One of the technical tricks of comedy is shock and misdirection. Shock and awe is key, and Eleanor Catton pulls off some cracking examples in The Rehearsal:
‘What’s the most common cause of paedophilia in this country?’
‘I don’t know.’
Dark, disturbing, it trips you up. But it only really works once. As the great comedian, George W Bush, once said, ‘Fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me … you can’t get fooled again!’ Some comedy is like gum: once chewed it’s done.
But not all comedy is equal, nor disposable. Some comedy is born great, some has greatness thrust upon it; some ages well, and some ferments. I had a teacher who’d laugh his arse off at Shakespeare, then had to explain the joke. Which of course killed it. The words the reason it’s funny are the assassin’s bullet to a joke. A joke must be an autonomous package. But though some of the Bard’s gags are dead to all bar a few snickering scholars, the core of his comedy remains. Malvolio still makes us think, The guy is a pompous arse with no self-knowledge, he’s just like David Brent. It’s a joke that’s so entwined in what makes us human, it’s simply truth.
Asking Google about funny Kiwi authors resulted in: Andy Griffiths. The two issues here are: first, he’s a children’s author; second, he’s Australian. Oh dear. My kids assured me his Treehouse series is the ‘funniest thing in the universe!’, which I don’t doubt, but the fact remains Kiwi authors have yet to tickle Google’s algorithm.
So I visited the fount of all my New Zealand literary knowledge, the Oracle – otherwise known as the two old ladies who run the local bookshop. Usually they jump to help. This time they glared as if I’d asked for something inappropriate, like a pack of flavoured condoms.
The First said, ‘No, we don’t do funny!’ and the Other agreed – ‘No, we don’t!’
There followed a silence in which I fought the sense that I’d slipped into a sketch from League of Gentlemen, until the First said, ‘But we do do dark humour,’ which was echoed by the Other – ‘Yes, we do do dark.’
‘And we do,’ added the First, ‘do a good line in irreverence, too.’
‘Yes we do!’ rhymed the Other, stumbling into Dr Seuss.
Then the First said defensively, as if the honour of the nation was at stake, ‘We’re very funny people actually, but …’ and here the First spluttered out leaving the Other to pick up the telepathic thread – ‘We’re just not flashy with our humour!’
This was said with a tint of reprimand as if I was a dealer of flashy humour. They then recommended ‘everything by Nigel Cox’ and also Warrior Queen by Barbara Else, a book crackling with quiet humour – funny but not flashy.
The final wise man on my comedy odyssey was Damien Wilkins, Director of the Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, who has a new funny novel out called Dad Art. We’ll be on a ‘humourous novels’ panel together – along with Danyl Mclauchlan and Paula Morris – at the WORD Christchurch Readers and Writers Festival in late August so Wilkins seemed the perfect person to talk to.
I ask if the lack of funny writing in New Zealand is to do with nerve. That while many confidently craft heavy scenes knowing they’ll inspire heavy emotions, arguably there’s more at stake when crafting a comedy scene. For there are few feelings as grim as being singed by the furious silence of a failed punch line.
Wilkins doesn’t think this is the case but contends that the ‘default of writers is seriousness. The vehicle of the novel tends to lead to profound places. We put on our best clothes, as it were.’ But to counter this he then reels off a long list of his favourite funny books, including Barbara Anderson’s Girls High, Kirsten McDougall’s The Invisible Rider, Bird North by Breton Dukes and Son of France by Geoff Cush.
Kiwi have an idiosyncratic sense of humour: dark and irreverent, it spills into everything – into odd bookshop owners, into the giggling wit of Billy T James and bro’Town, the deadpan genius of Flight of the Conchords, even into the design of a potential national flag featuring a killer Kiwi with murderous laser eyes. When I ask why more of this wit is not spilling into literature, Wilkins says that it is. In fact, he says, it’s so often deftly executed that ‘jokes slide by with great elegance.’ Humour, he argues, ‘is simply an intrinsic part of great writing.’
This brings us back to the Braunias-Catch: funny should infuse, not fuel, books. Though I can see his point I also believe there’s still room for more funny books. Now I say this with the utmost respect, for I have an immigrant’s fear of losing my most prized possession, my Kiwi passport, but – New Zealand is hilarious.
Comedy is conflict and New Zealand is fizzing with the stuff. It’s a prosaic place with people rubbing along; yet bubbling below is a violent unresolved history of who owns what. It’s a stunning land where Kiwis potter about on the most volatile fault lines. It’s renowned for the greatest feat of human endeavour – conquering Everest – and for the shaggiest sheep – Shrek! This is a funny, and need I add beautiful and incredible (please don’t revoke my passport I love it here!) nation. Frankly, if you made New Zealand up people wouldn’t believe it. They wouldn’t believe these tiny islands could contain such heaving contradictions. I’m thrilled to have hit a few seams of comedy gold but there are still rich pickings in this strange and brilliant land.
Author of the novels Terms & Conditions (2014) and Please Do Not Disturb (2016), Robert Glancy was raised in Malawi – The Warm Heart of Africa – before being frozen in Scotland. He is now thawing in New Zealand, writing book three.